What I Did On My Birthday

From Frida Kahlo’s garden: Our Lady of Guadalupe

If you’re an artist, you work all the time. If you’re a writer, it’s all material. We’re “retired” but seldom take a day off. I need to post my syllabus for a writer’s workshop I’m teaching. Phil has twenty orders for his restored dust jackets. There’s a painting he wants to do, a series of poems I mean to revise. The very thought of taking a day off induces shivers of panic. But when Phil asked what I wanted for my birthday, I had this wild idea: a day off. He developed a plan, we powered down the computers and left the house in the morning, not to return until evening.

First we saw Judy at her swank rehab in Lakewood, took a latte for her, coffee for us, pumpkin bread for us all. It was sunny and mild, a view of hills outside her wide windows. Out there west of town, the land rolls more emphatically, gathering itself to become foothills in a few miles. On her way to a demonstration in support of the ACA, Judy fell and broke both arms. She’s made progress and is also engaged in radicalizing the rehab staff. “Did you know it was International Women’s Day?” She asks the nurses. “You know why we were marching?” You can’t keep a good woman down, even with full casts on both arms. Nevertheless, she persists.

Then back downtown to the Denver Art Museum for the Mi Tierra show, a group of installations by Hispanic-American artists, including tough ones like “Erasure,” Anna Teresa Fernandez’ memorial protest for the 43 disappeared students from Iguala; and fun ones like Justin Favela’s “Fridalandia,” his evocation of Frida Kahlo’s garden in piñata crepe paper. It’s art if it brings sadness and smiles.

The Star Wars costume exhibit is still selling out. For Phil’s sake, we did wander through the Star Wars gift shop, where I said firmly, “we’re not buying that $300 model of a starship.” Jeez. We also saw the architectural exhibit detailing the museum’s iterations to date and those projected in the near future. You thought they were done? There’s a mushroom-shaped welcome center to come.

We had lunch at the museum’s Palettes restaurant. Palate/palette, get it? Winter squash soup. Beet and kale salad with walnuts and goat cheese, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds for me. Phil had pork schnitzel with red cabbage and mashed potatoes. How does this marriage survive?

Then a late afternoon showing of “The Red Turtle,” nominee for the animated film Oscar, stunningly beautiful—Phil says it’s a French style of animation—perhaps a fantasy, but you’re never sure. Not a word is spoken—no dialogue, just natural sounds, music. A guy gets shipwrecked on a deserted island and then… Produced by the brilliant Japanese Studio Ghibli and directed by British-Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, it took my breath away.

In recent years most movies are multi-national productions, as you realize if you stay for the credits crawl. The gradual merging and mixing that is happening in all lands and walks of life has already happened in the film industry. I like noting the multiple ethnicities of names and locations as the thousands who made the film roll past.

“The Red Turtle” was a counterweight for “I Am Not Your Negro,” the James Baldwin documentary we’d seen a few days before. Baldwin is one of our finest writers, but the film isn’t a bio pic. It’s a portrait of America, of Baldwin’s analysis of America, interwoven with the filmmaker’s judicious selections of archival footage, bits of old movies and TV. An image that seared me was a news clip of a black girl on her way to integrating a high school, surrounded by young white people. Their faces are twisted and ugly, their mouths splitting with insults, eyes oozing hatred. That loathing of those we have sinned against most sorely, is what we must someday confront if we are ever to heal, Baldwin believed. In “Notes of a Native Son” he wrote, “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

After “the Red Turtle,” we came home just past dusk. These days we feel smug when we manage to do that, no longer enjoy late nights or driving in the dark. A bowl of soup, a bit of PBS news, pondering the exquisite film we’d just seen. The story isolates a man, a woman, their child, paring down to essentials to reveal the essential cycles of life: how we struggle, grow, love, suffer loss and hurt, recover, watch our children go off on their own as they must, grow old, prepare to die. I remember a wide shot of the separate tracks two people leave as they walk through a field of golden grass rippling in the breeze, tracks that slowly wind toward each other and unite.

 

 

Posted in Humor, Memoir, Writing | 7 Comments

Skulls and Art

Posada’s famous Calavera Catrina

Bishops from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. have united to proclaim that praying to Santa Muerte, a folk figure depicted as a skeleton, is not a good thing and people should stop. Delightful. I found this news on back pages of the February 21 Denver Post. Finding articles NOT about 45 is a daunting task these days. By comparison, death is a fine alternative topic.

It turns out that while Catholic enrollments are dropping, devotees of Santa Muerte are increasing, particularly among drug cartels. I imagine such prayers as, “Dear Saint Death, please kill off the rival cartel and let my heroin shipment get through to Detroit.”

The article didn’t say so, but I’m pretty sure the church regards Santa Muerte as a consort of the Devil. A rack of bones with long dark hair, she often carries the scythe favored by the grim reaper of our heritage. Evolved over centuries from Aztec deities, she reminds me of the Hindu goddess Kali, who’s been around thousands of years, wears a necklace of skulls and is way sexier.

The upshot is there’s nothing new about lady death, she’s just been reconfigured. Sort of like the way Tea Party protesters at town hall meetings a decade ago have now become liberal protesters at town hall meetings. It hurts my feelings, by the way, that they accuse us of being paid activists. Did we accuse the Tea Party of that?

When I worked at Chicano Humanities and Arts Council half a life ago, we had a big poster of the lady skeleton in her rustic wooden cart. That was Doña Sebastiana, a New Mexican variation on the theme. She forgoes the scythe for a bow and arrow. I rather like the irony of that: instead of getting shot by the arrow of love, you realize, too late—this is not that arrow. But either way, a lady skeleton of death has become popular. And the bishops aren’t happy. No good can come of it, they say.

The bishops don’t know the half of it. Día de los Muertos has taken America by storm. Everybody and his nephew has an elaborately decorated Día skull, or sugar skulls with their names written on the forehead. I’ve seen skull earrings and pink flannel pajamas covered in pretty little skulls. Skull tats and skull T-shirts. I was in a Mexican restaurant, idly looking around while waiting for our food, and realized the décor was entirely skull-based. Even the wallpaper had a tiny skull pattern in it.

I was hoping to find a skull postcard to send to Paul Ryan this week. He’s apparently stopped taking our petitions and phone calls, so the women’s march folk thoughtfully published his home address. I sent him a few cards, reminding him of the importance of health care and civil rights. Sadly, none had skulls on them.

I have a lady esqueleto on my desk, wearing a sparkly red dress, pounding away on her computer. I call her Pollyanna Posada. Posada, in honor of José Guadalupe Posada, the Mexican artist who, around 1900, created the satirical skeletons everyone copies; and Pollyanna because I love alliteration. Pollyanna was a gift from Donna and Mike, two cosmopolitan hedonists I know. They gave her to me when I had a birthday that meant I was on the downhill.

Pollyanna Posada at work

Pollyanna’s kind of like me. Most days I can’t resist optimism. Sending Paul Ryan those postcards cheered me up, even though I know he won’t read them. A few days ago I saw merchandise for sale on Facebook in the afternoon. That evening we heard the news about Elizabeth Warren being silenced while reading the Coretta Scott King letter. They showed a clip of McConnell saying she was warned but nevertheless she persisted. “That,” I tell my husband, “is already a T-shirt.”

Response is faster than thunder after lightning these days. That also makes me happy. And I’m completely jazzed by the fact that Pollyanna’s still writing in spite of being dead. Dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a writer—a failure to write is.

“Look,” I tell Doña Sebastiana, “point that arrow elsewhere: I need to finish this blog.” Creation of art is always done in defiance of death. I’d never wear that sequin dress though: trashy.

 

Posted in Humor, Politics, Writing | 5 Comments

To Start Over My Life: The Refugees

The Colorado Refugee ESL program at Emily Griffith Technical College serves 2,500 students from 72 countries, speaking 94 languages. I learned this at the training for in-home tutoring volunteers.

Fifteen of us fill the class: teachers, retired teachers, students, Peace Corps veterans, a college professor. The lovely woman next to me is a retired lawyer, spent a month in Laos teaching English to Buddhist monks. Many of us have traveled or lived abroad.

“Give me teachers and retired teachers,” Sharon says, “and this program would run smooth as silk forever.” Sharon is the volunteer coordinator, leads our training and has been doing so for years. Our one man observes that he’s glad men have been allowed in the class and we all laugh. In fact, most volunteers are women. Last class had four men and it was shocking. They sat together and bonded.

You’re not a refugee until you’ve left your country, until it’s been documented that you’ve done so for fear of your life, for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or war. You’re not a refugee until you’ve registered with UNHRC, at one of their woefully under-funded refugee field offices. Then the International Organization of Migration manages your case. Immigration agencies of various countries interview you. If you’re lucky.

This takes years. Meanwhile, your life is on hold. Vetting is already extreme: less than one percent of refugees get re-settled and they have no choice about where. Those making that decision for them consider job and housing markets, and “the friendliness of the receiving community.”

Consequently, the south doesn’t get many refugees. The Atlanta area does, a few others, but nobody goes to Mississippi. Refugees are told they’ve been approved and they’re going to Houston or Detroit. They don’t know either from pita bread. They’re just happy to go somewhere they’ve heard is safe, where their children can go to school.

Getting here is not a free ride. Refugees sign a note to pay back their travel expenses: for a family of five that can be thousands. And most refugees come in families. Less than one per cent of them default on that loan.

In the first ninety days, they go through extensive medical evaluations and treatments. A doctor told Sharon, “they’re coming sicker and sicker.” Because they’re spending longer in refugee camps with little or no care, conditions that could have been easily cured have become serious problems. Refugee resettlement agencies arrange a modest apartment, a case manager and a jobs counselor. For about four months, they get cash assistance of a few hundred dollars a month to pay rent, utilities, food.

Sharon tells us about refugees in Denver: Afghan, Iraqi, Burmese, Cuban, Congolese (DRC), Ethiopian, Sudanese, Eritrean, Ukrainian, Syrian and Somali—since 1991 Somalia’s had no functioning government and the life expectancy there is 40. Those pirates are mostly teenagers.

“Afghan women are rabid for education,” Sharon says. They will ask you to come every day. Practice saying, “Sorry, I can’t.” Set boundaries. Iraqi men line up outside Sharon’s office, trying to get in-home tutors for their wives, and “it can’t be a man.” Congolese are mostly Christian and the women have a high incidence of PTSD. The wars there have killed six million.

Sharon never met a shy Somali. They are strong-willed extroverts and have built a close community here. Many come from the largest, worst refugee camp in the world, in Kenya. An entire generation has been born and raised there, in exile. Many Somali have never set foot in their country of origin. Somali women are bossy and friendly, will hug you as soon as they know you. Syrians are more conservative and often arrive terrified, afraid to leave their houses. Most Syrians who get re-settled here left home four years ago, have been in camps in Jordan or Turkey.

Iraqis are educated, middle class. Saddam Hussein required schooling. The thing about dictatorships, Sharon says, is they often produce a high level of literacy. The Iraqis will tell you about their flat screen TVs and granite countertops, how they were school administrators or engineers and now have to live in this dump and wash dishes. They need to vent. Let them. Remind them that USA means “You Start Again,” that in the USA washing dishes doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll ever do. The teachers have posters with their own career paths as examples: I was a waitress, a sales clerk and now I’m a teacher.

Focus on what will lead to independence, Sharon says. Day 1, teach them to write and recite their addresses. They come from places without addresses, don’t know numbers in English, how to say street names, what order the components go in. They’ll put Colorado first, then the city. Sharon shows us writing students did about why they came. One student wrote: to start over my life.

Normally, this program gets less than ten volunteers per month. This January, 150 applied. Applicants for in-home tutoring are usually on a wait list for months. Now volunteers may wait weeks to be assigned a student.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to respond to the election with this kind of resolve. Sharon says our refugees are scared, stressed. They’ve been through so much, hoped so long—the average wait time to be resettled is ten years. And now, in a country they thought was safe, they feel threatened. The flood of volunteers reassures them that there are Americans who welcome and want to help them. Being asked why we’ve volunteered, most of us say, “the election.”

Posted in Education, Politics | 6 Comments

Post-March Meditation

One of many Women’s March signs in several languages

The last time I marched the streets of downtown Denver was in the 1970s, for 16th of September demonstrations. Corky Gonzalez and the Crusade for Justice organized the first one in 1969, called it “Chicano Liberation Day.” One year I walked behind a flatbed truck of musicians playing “De Colores” over and over. I was learning Spanish and by the end of the march had learned that song. One year I was near the brown berets. They carried a street-wide banner in Spanish that said “It’s better to die on your feet than to go on living on your knees.”

Those were heady years of turmoil and change. There was violence. Radicals run out of patience, like the old cartoon of two vultures, one saying to the other: “Patience hell—I’m gonna kill something.” That’s what the extremes do in times like those, times like these: they kill something. When Obama was elected extremes on the right started the atrocious birther movement. They killed the hope that racism was behind us. On the left now, that angry, impatient tendency is rising. Patience. Hold on.

At the January 21st Women’s March on Denver, a band played this song:

I know the one thing we did right

Was the day we started to fight

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

One sign said “SO BAD even introverts are here.” That’s me. Being in the midst of a mass is normally my idea of hell. After standing among those thousands in Civic Center for over an hour, waiting to march, the chill of muddy snow seeping through the soles of my shoes, my fingers aching through my gloves, I had a strong headache coming on. Jammed together, we crept forward one small step at a time. People as far as I could see, blurring borders between park, one street and the next. As we moved, a woman ahead of us warned, “Curb.” Oh, my God, we’re on the street. It was as if we were blind. Yet, for the first time since the 70s, I felt compelled to attend, had no choice.

A chant: Love, not hate, makes America great.

In the fast walking of getting there, I was joyful—eight or ten of us at Coffee at the Point, thirty or forty pink pussy-hatted people at the light rail stop, standing room only on the train, the 16th Street Mall trickling with groups coursing in the same direction, bristling with placards, pouring toward Civic Center, creeks becoming streams becoming rivers at floodtide.

A sign: Build Bridges, Not Walls

“This is historic,” I said to Judy when we reached the teeming edge of the park. “We are participating in an historic event.” Estimates indicate this may have been the largest mass protest ever, world-wide. It was certainly the largest in Denver.

A responsorial chant: What do we want? Equal pay. When do we want it? Yesterday.

After nearly two hours, we had shuffled a block, reached a place on 15th street where we actually could walk, the marching band beside us. Enlivened again, we joined many others in dancing. Let me move and I’m fine.

Women’s March, Denver: Lorax and Dylan Thomas quotes, Standing Rock support

A chant: Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.

To freely march the streets flaunting signs that say “Keep your tiny hands off my human rights” and “There is no Planet B.” To see the ascendancy of hate, racism, lies, violations of civil rights, threats to environmental protections, all we hold dear—and to be able to protest. Coming by the millions to this march. Basking in the company of like minds. Showing the world we are appalled by the direction our country is taking.

A march changes nothing, however numerous its participants. A march is like a campaign rally, fires up the base. But from enough marches, enough calls to congress people, voting, volunteering and putting your money where your mouth is, yes, change eventually comes. In the early 1970s, you could walk through City and County offices and seldom see a Latino face. Now there are many, and we’ve had Hispanic administrators, politicians, even a mayor, improvements to rights and opportunities for people of color. The Chicano movement spurred a renaissance of poetry and art, a renewed celebration of culture. We are all enriched now because those things happened then.

But here we are again. Hard-fought for gains under the gun.

Sign: I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.

But we do. We will. Because this is what democracy looks like.

Posted in Memoir, Politics | 13 Comments